Feature Ultrasonography

Will ultrasound scanners replace the stethoscope?

BMJ 2014; 348 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.g3463 (Published 29 May 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g3463
  1. Marc Wittenberg, clinical fellow, The BMJ and NHS England
  1. mwittenberg{at}bmj.com

Cheap, portable ultrasound scanners are changing the way doctors examine and diagnose their patients. Marc Wittenberg explores the benefits and possible pitfalls

Ultrasonography has long been used to monitor the progress of pregnancies. But over the past decade machines have become cheaper, more reliable, and highly portable with the result that general practitioners and specialists are increasingly using them to make on the spot diagnoses of many conditions without having to consult an imaging expert.

Ultrasound machines use variation in the way that high pitched sound waves penetrate different tissues to generate images. The technique is popular because patients are not exposed to the risks of ionising radiation associated with computed tomography or radiography. It is also now cheap, costing £56 (€69; $95) for a scan of more than 20 minutes compared with £217 for a three area magnetic resonance imaging scan according to the latest NHS tariffs.1

The latest portable machines produce images that are almost the same quality as that of the larger machines; and they are easy to use, durable, and cost as little as £5000. The result is that doctors in all sorts of fields are starting to use them and, with a growing body of literature supporting their use in the developing world,2 the World Health Organization now recommends them as a primary diagnostic tool in low resource environments.

Rising demand

The number of ultrasound examinations performed by imaging experts has increased on average by 5.2% every year for the past 10 years, according to Department of Health data, and imaging experts (radiologists, radiographers, and sonographers) are struggling to keep up …

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